reil Marcus didn’t like Martin Scorcese’s “No Direction Home” and he says so in great detail. I did like it; was fascinated, in fact, so I’ll say so, in detail.
First, I have to address two statements made in the opening paragraph of the essay: “It allows, say, the Irish folksinger Liam Clancy, telling stories of Dylan in Greenwich Village, to contradict Dylan telling his own stories about the same thing; the film contradicts itself.”
No, it allows the people, telling their own stories, to tell the story they remember, as humans will do. And it does so without feeling compelled to annotate their commentary in order to ‘prove’ one version or the other.
Follows immediately “There is nothing definitive here; within the film there is not a single version of a single song that runs from beginning to end.”
As difficult as it is for some to imagine, Dylan is not his music. This is a biography of a man, not a concert film or music video. I may or may not have been aware that each song starts, or ends, where it doesn’t start or end. I certainly didn’t care.
I have been a huge fan of Bob Dylan for some time – but not for all time. When I was a teenager, some of his obvious classics appealed to me, but I couldn’t have understood “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” any more than the man in the moon. I went through a period of definite disgust with what I considered taradiddle; meaningless songs full of pretentious babbling and disrhythmic performance.
Eventually, I came back around to a realization that this music had affected me, and continued to do so. Learning to play bass, “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone” came easily, and allowed me to play and sing at the same time. Being forced to learn the words, I developed a compulsion to understand them – and there’s no sword sharp enough for this Gordian knot.
The opening scene of Part II of “No Direction Home” provided a personal insight into the human being that was Robert Zimmerman which, to me, was all the explanation I needed for the lyrics to gems like those I’ve already mentioned: Dylan, walking down an English street, sees a handful of signs posted outside a shop. They advertise the banal and personal things little handmade signs might, on a wall outside a little shop in a small town. Dylan stops to read the signs, and a funny look comes over his face, perhaps at the bizarre juxtaposition of
– or –
on the left,
and on the right
Reading the signs over again, a little faster, he repeats them again, even faster, then again, but now, the words are mixed together from the wrong signs; faster now, mixed more; even faster and more confused, but still the same words, just jumbled up in a frenzied salad of familiar words and phrases taken out of context; rent from their moorings, they’re tantalizingly familiar, whilst meaning nothing whatsoever.
“Animals and birds bought or sold on commission.”
“I want a dog that is going to collect and clean my bath, return my cigarette and give tobacco to my animals and give my birds a commission.”
“I am looking for a place to bathe my bird, buy my dog, collect my clip, sell me cigarettes and commission my bath.”
“I am looking for a place that is going to collect my commission, sell my dog, burn my bird, and sell me to the cigarette.”
“Gonna bird my buy, collect my will, and bathe my commission.”
“I am looking for a place that is going to animal my soul, knit my return, bathe my foot and collect my dog.”
“Commission me to sell my animal to the bird to clip and buy my bath and return me back to the cigarette.”
And I know, now, what it means when Dylan says “he just smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette.” It means that Robert Zimmerman, or Bob Dylan, or both, love words and laughter and the rhythm of speech.
And that’s all it has to mean, to me.